“Staking out the shadows between melancholy and fatalistic, Elliott Smith wrote pretty tunes that assumed the worst. At least that’s the critical shorthand on one of the more easily stereotyped artists of the last decade. But there’s more to Smith and his music than such faulty caricatures suggest.
A lyric from the song that opens Smith’s final studio album, “From a Basement on the Hill” plays right into the tortured-artist cliché: “I’ll never be good enough for you.” Of course, it’s tempting to read even more into Smith’s pessimism now that he’s gone, his death from two stab wounds last year instantly elevating him to rock-martyr status.
Because inconclusive evidence leaves the exact cause of Smith’s death unresolved, it’s also tempting to parse his last batch of songs for clues. He drops plenty of lines that the morbidly curious may find filled portent, all of which obscures what should matter most: that Smith’s music at its best is beautiful and even redemptive, that his melodies often rise above the ugliness he conjures in his lyrics, and that “From a Basement on the Hill” is less a closing whimper from a fragile wallflower than an assured testament from a singer and songwriter at the top of his game. For all the seeming chaos in his world outside the recording studio, Smith brought a focus to his final performances that exudes assurance and confidence.(…)
He doesn’t allow himself to sink into the burdens described in his lyrics.
He instead floats above them.
Yet it’s impossible not to detect a hint of anger bubbling underneath. When it surfaces, it’s disturbing in the best possible sense. “Coast to Coast” sounds like it’s trying to bash its way out of a cage as Smith declares: “I belong in the zoo.” And the heavy-metal drumming on “Shooting Star” coaxes an appealing gruffness out of Smith’s normally placid voice. This isn’t the sound of a martyr in the making. It’s an artist shaking his fist in won’t-go-quietly defiance.”